When Donald Trump and his allies pushed the big lie of voter fraud and a stolen election, it seemed like nothing could stop them from spreading disinformation with impunity.
Calls from politicians and activists have fallen on deaf ears. TV networks and newspapers checked to no avail. The giants of social networks have proven to be powerless.
But now a little-known tech company, founded 18 years ago in Canada, is afraid of conspiracy theorists. The key: sue them for libel, potentially for billions of dollars.
Defamation laws may prove to be a very old mechanism for dealing with a whole new phenomenon of massive disinformation, said Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist. We all have these fact checkers, but a lot of people don’t care. Nothing else seems to work, so maybe it will.
The David in this David and Goliath story is Dominion Voting Systems, an electoral machinery company named after the Canada Federal Elections Act of 1920. Its main offices are in Toronto and Denver and describes itself as the main supplier of electoral technology in the United States. He says he serves more than 40% of American voters, with customers in 28 states.
But the 2020 election put a goal on its back. As the White House escaped and Trump desperately pushed baseless allegations of electoral fraud, his lawyers and cheerleaders falsely claimed Dominion rigged the polls in favor of Joe Biden.
Among the more baroque conspiracy theories is that Dominion changed the votes thanks to algorithms in its voting machines which were created in Venezuela to rig the elections of the late dictator Hugo Chvez.
The truth matters. Lies have consequences
It was laughable but also potentially devastating to the reputation of the Dominions and ruinous to its business. It also fueled a cocktail of conspiracy theories that fueled Trump supporters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, as Congress moved to certify the election results. Five people died, including an officer from the Capitol Police.
The company retaliates. He filed a $ 1.3 billion libel lawsuit against Trump’s attorneys Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, and MyPillow chief executive Mike Lindell, for pushing the allegations without evidence.
Separately, Dominions Security Director Eric Coomer has brought campaign action against Trump, Giuliani, Powell and some conservative figures and media, claiming he was forced into hiding by death threats.
Then came the big one. Last month, Dominion filed a $ 1.6 billion libel suit against Rupert Murdochs Fox News, accusing him of trying to increase ratings by amplifying false claims.
Truth matters, Dominion lawyers wrote in the complaint. Lies have consequences. Fox sold a bogus story of voter fraud in order to further his own business purposes, seriously injuring Dominion in the process. If this case does not reach the level of defamation by a broadcaster, then nothing is right.
The lawsuit argues that Fox’s hosts and guests took a small flame and turned it into a wildfire by spreading outlandish claims that the Dominion’s systems changed votes and ignoring the company’s repeated efforts to restore facts.
The radioactive lies broadcast by Fox News will cost the Dominion $ 600 million over the next eight years, according to the lawsuit, and have resulted in the harassment of Dominion employees and the loss of major contracts in Georgia and Louisiana.
Fox fiercely disputes the accusation. He said in a statement: Fox News Media is proud of our election coverage of 2020, which follows in the highest tradition of American journalism, and will vigorously defend itself against this baseless trial in the courts.
Other conservative media have also raised objections. Chris Ruddy, Managing Director of Newsmax, said: We believe that all of these lawsuits are a violation of press freedom as it relates to media organizations. There were years of Russian collusion investigations when all the major cable networks reported unsubstantiated allegations. I think Fox was reporting the news and Newsmax certainly was.
But some observers think Dominion has a strong case. Norman Eisen, Principal Investigator at the Brookings Institution, said: Dominion has an exceptional perspective in its litigation against Fox for the simple reason that Fox has knowingly broadcast the most outrageous and clearest lies time and time again.
You shouldn’t have a big TV channel that is a megaphone for scandalous election liesNorman Eisen
There are certainly protections under the First Amendment and otherwise, but it’s so out of bounds, such a clear case, that I think Fox is looking at some very serious legal exposure here and that’s how it should be. .
You shouldn’t have a big TV station capable of providing a megaphone day in and day out for the outrageous election-related lies, which helped spark a violent insurgency on January 6. They shouldn’t be able to feed a constant stream of these pernicious lies in the body politic without any legal consequences.
A real battlefield
Eisen, a former White House ethics czar, suggests that the Dominion affair could provide at least a model for facing the war on truth.
The United States and the world have to deal with misinformation, he said.
There is no doubt that all methods will be necessary, but libel law certainly provides a very important vehicle for establishing the consequences and although there is no guarantee when you go to court, it is of an exceptionally high risk for Fox with a big price tag attached too.
There are signs that the lawsuits, and their serious financial implications, have put reckless individuals and outlets on the run.
Pro-Trump protesters storm the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Photograph: Michael Reynolds / EPA
Powell asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit against her, arguing that her claims were protected by the right to free speech. But she also presented the unusual defense that she had exaggerated to make a point and that reasonable people would not accept such statements as fact but would only view them as allegations waiting to be tested by the courts in part of the adversarial process.
Two days after voting machine maker Smartmatic filed a $ 2.7 billion libel complaint that alleged TV host Lou Dobbs falsely accused him of election rigging, Fox Business abruptly quashed Lou Dobbs Tonight, his most watched show. He also filed a motion to dismiss the Smartmatic lawsuit.
Meanwhile, the pro-Trump media began to use prepared warnings or pre-recorded programs to counter guest-pitched election conspiracy theories. When Lindell launched an attack on Dominion on Newsmax in February, co-host Bob Sellers attempted to cut him off, then left the set.
RonNell Andersen Jones, a law professor at the University of Utah, told the Washington Post: We see how defamation has become a real battleground in the fight against disinformation.
The threat of massive damage to possibly spread false conspiracy theories on matters of public interest might prove to be the only tool that succeeds in deterring this behavior, where so many other tools seem to have failed.
Defamation lawsuits will provide another test of the judiciary as a pillar of American democracy. The independence of the courts has proven to be strong in the face of dozens of lawsuits brought by Trump and his allies to overturn the election result.
Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said: This is such an underrated enlightenment of the multiple avenues for pursuing politics. Sometimes we’re understandably absorbed in what Congress can do, which is obviously important at times, but most of the time pretty deadlocked.
But were going to see the justice system sue the January 6 perpetrators, sue Donald Trump and pursue these Dominion libel accusations for the monstrous lies that were told after the election.
Thank goodness for the courts, because the elected sections really botched it.
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